Note: this is an excerpt from a work in progress.
I. Spain: November, 2019
“Would you like to try some?” he asked, offering up a brown paper package he’d just retrieved from a stuffed gym bag. I must have looked dubious, as he added, “It’s good, actually.” But I was hesitant not because I feared how his gluten-free snack would taste but because I was unsure of the propriety of a writer’s sharing food with her subject.
In that moment, though, I wasn’t operating as a journalist. And Novak Djoković was less a world-famous athlete than one of a small group of Serbs hanging around after a press conference, commiserating over a painful loss. Despite our differences in status, it felt like we were in this together.
I cupped my hands and watched as he poured a mix of oats and carob chunks into them. He was right: it wasn’t bad. We both munched as we resumed our conversation—by that point, we’d shifted from tennis and sports journalism to the most apt Serbian translation for “drama queen” to recent films about Nikola Tesla.
We’d started talking some 15 minutes earlier, after Djoković stretched out on the dais near one of his Davis Cup teammates, with whom I was chatting. In front of the podium, the other Serbian players were taking turns doing their final domestic tv interviews of the week. In an unusual move, Djoković was waiting for everyone to finish up so they could leave the media center as a team. Even the players too young to have been there from the beginning knew what this day had become: it was the end of an era.
Whether the era in question began in 2001, when Jelena Janković and Janko Tipsarević foreshadowed the success to come by winning the juniors singles titles at the Australian Open, or in 2004, when Nenad Zimonjić lifted the mixed doubles trophy in Melbourne, beating defending champions Martina Navratilova and Leander Paes with his Russian partner, or even in 2007, when Ana Ivanović and Novak Djoković made their first major finals (at the French Open and US Open, respectively) and ended the year ranked among the top 4 players in the world—it hardly matters. In fact, one could argue that the era started in 1995, when rump Yugoslavia returned to international tennis competition, in both the men’s Davis Cup and women’s Federation Cup, after several years in the wilderness due to UN sanctions. Zimonjić, the only Serb whose career had spanned this entire quarter century, was now 43 and playing on artificial hips.
In November 2019, the Serbian men approached the Spanish capital for the national team tournament with two goals: to finish the decade as they’d started it, by winning the Davis Cup, and to give their outspoken, bespectacled teammate Janko Tipsarević a proper sendoff into retirement. (A group vacation in the Maldives was to follow.) Tipsarević had already competed at his final ATP event a month prior, making the quarterfinals at the Stockholm Open. He was selected for the national team despite having played only intermittently—not just during his last season but over the previous five years—due to a series of injuries which had derailed his career after two seasons ranked in the top ten. In Madrid, he and Viktor Troicki, who had performed the hero’s role in their 2010 Davis Cup victory, played two doubles matches in the round-robin group stage, winning one and losing the other to one of the very best doubles teams in the world: Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut of France, who had gone undefeated at the ATP’s year-end championship the previous week. In the quarterfinal tie against Russia, with the teams poised at one match apiece, the Serbs had opted to substitute Djoković in to partner Troicki in the deciding doubles contest. The childhood friends, who had won their first titles together as juniors, suffered a devastating loss in a third-set tiebreaker, having failed to capitalize on several match points.
The six-member team entered the interview room in silence and sat behind their microphones and tented name-cards with bowed heads, at least a few sporting red eyes and Djoković hiding his face under the bill of a baseball cap. The players’ answers were emotional from the start, with Djoković admitting the loss “hurts us really badly” and Troicki adding, “I probably feel the worst ever [after a loss]. I never experienced such a moment in my career, in my life. And I let my team down, and I apologize to them.” It likely wasn’t until Zimonjić, in the captain’s chair, choked up that the majority of the assembled press understood what was at stake for the Serbs in this Davis Cup campaign.
“Sorry,” he began haltingly. “It’s not [about] winning or losing, just for you to understand.” Through tears, he explained: “It’s that the four players sitting here. . . I would say they are the golden generation of our tennis. And I see it as an end because it’s Janko’s last match. . . . You dream, maybe, to go all the way—to celebrate, you know, with a victory. But sometimes it doesn’t happen, what you wanted to happen.”
Even though, two years later, Djoković remains on the top of the game, Zimonjić was right: the loss in Madrid marked the end of something significant. Ana Ivanović, the youngest of the “golden” group, had preceded all of them into retirement, opting to stop playing at age 29, after injury cut short her 2016 season. Though Jelena Janković hasn’t officially hung up her racquets, she also hasn’t competed professionally since undergoing back surgery after the 2017 US Open. Viktor Troicki, who rebounded from that worst-ever feeling by helping Serbia win the inaugural ATP Cup trophy at the start of 2020, spent the last year transitioning from active player to Davis Cup captain.
II. Serbia: July, 2010
Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was a summer that would change my life.
I spent a chunk of it, including my birthday, in the village of my father’s birth, 100km west of Belgrade. There was nothing unusual about this, as I’d been visiting my grandmother’s farm since infancy; nor was it a rare occurrence for me to celebrate at least part of my birthday inside, watching tv. When my grandmother first got a black and white television in the early ‘80s, my siblings and I would rush from the back yard where we spent most of our day into the living room to catch the cartoons that came on before the nightly news—most often, Looney Tunes reels dubbed into what was then called “Serbo-Croatian.” But as I got older, I watched more sports coverage, especially of my favorite event, Wimbledon, which (like my birthday) takes place in early July.
In 2010, I got a double-dose of tennis. Though Novak Djoković had lost in the semifinals at the All England Club, the Davis Cup quarterfinals were scheduled for the weekend following Wimbledon’s conclusion—and Serbia was playing in them for the first time as an independent nation. This was a huge occasion, in part because it had taken the Serbian team 15 years to climb from the lowest tier of regional zone competition to the “World Group”: the 16 best tennis nations. For the previous three seasons, they’d been knocking at the door of the tennis elite but unable to gain full entry, repeatedly losing in the first round and having to win September playoffs to get another chance the next year. Perhaps a bigger deal in the Balkans: Serbia was facing neighbors, former compatriots, and relatively recent co-belligerents in Croatia for a spot in the semifinals. As this was the first international meeting between the two men’s teams, members of which had all been born in Yugoslavia before the wars, there was some concern about what kind of welcome the Serbs would get from their hosts in Split. But apart from some hecklers in the crowd, it was uneventful off court. On court, the Serbs triumphed by a 4-1 margin, with all their wins coming in straight sets.
This victory—as well as those that followed, culminating in a championship tie played in front on twenty-thousand spectators packed into Belgrade Arena—marked a turning point not only for several members of the Davis Cup team but also for me.
Initiated into playing tennis by both parents and into being a tennis fan by my father, I’d been casually involved with the sport since childhood. Trips to the neighborhood court brought all manner of lessons, not merely in groundstroke technique but in sportsmanship as well. To this day, I can’t step on a tennis court without hearing my dad’s voice—at one moment, admonishing me for not returning balls directly to my opponent when it was his or her turn to serve; at another, expressing pleasant surprise at how well I hit a backhand. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, the later rounds of majors were broadcast on network tv and I was allowed to stare at the screen for longer than usual. One of the first philosophical disagreements I recall having with my father concerned the on-court antics of John McEnroe: while we both admired Bjorn Borg and disliked Jimmy Conners, we were divided over the American who had earned his nickname “SuperBrat.” The introductory music NBC chose for their “Breakfast at Wimbledon” program still transports me back to our shared time in front of the tv—not quite as powerful or as sentimental as Proust’s madeleine, perhaps, but something like it. Though I rooted for Martina Navratilova and enjoyed seeing other WTA players in action, my early fandom reached its peak when Boris Becker—like me, a teenager—smashed his serve and threw his body around the grass courts at Wimbledon in the mid-‘80s.
In 1986, the year “Boom Boom” Becker won Wimbledon for a second time, another player in the men’s draw caught my eye. Though it’s the case that he was the stereotypical “tall, dark, and handsome” type of romance novels, I was attracted less by his features or physique than by his name—one bound to tie the tongues of Anglophone commentators. Because he shared my father’s first name, Slobodan (a name which would become infamous within a few years for reasons having nothing to do with tennis), I knew that meant he also shared his homeland. Growing up as an “ethnic” American, I was accustomed to people using Yugoslavia as a punchline: the long name, obscure location, and ambiguous geopolitical position, never mind the compact car, were the source of much teasing in the waning days of the Cold War. (One coach affectionately called me “half-breed,” something unimaginable today.) But Yugoslav passion for and prowess in sports were no joke. For one thing, Sarajevo had hosted the winter Olympics in 1984, while I was in high school. For another, the country had been collecting medals in team sports for decades: football, handball, volleyball, water polo, and (above all for an American) basketball. So, I had already experienced both collective exhilaration and cultural pride as a spectator of European championships and Summer Olympics. But since “Bobo” Živojinović was the first Yugoslav tennis player of whom I was aware, seeing him advance to the singles semifinal at Wimbledon—and, later that summer, win the men’s doubles trophy at the US Open—ignited a new feeling in me.
My favorite sport being played by people with names like mine, speaking the language I’d learned by communicating with my grandmother? That was something special. The rise and dominance of Monica Seles a few years later—she first won the French Open as a 16-year-old in 1990—was even more significant. Before she was stabbed by an unstable fan of one of her rivals, Seles had won eight grand slam titles playing under the Yugoslav flag.
Of course, all of this happened before the violent breakup of Yugoslavia—and before my ethnic identity became a source of shame rather than pride. As a child, I heard countless stories about both the traumatic events and heroic exploits of the two World Wars in which Serbs had fought alongside the Allies. In the center of our village, there was a monument bearing the names of both my grandfather and great-grandfather; their portraits, in uniform, hung in our living room. During our summer trips, I felt just as comfortable on Croatia’s Adriatic coast as in rural Serbia. At home in the DC suburbs, my parents hosted an annual “slava” celebrating our patron, Saint Nicholas, at which ex-pats from all over Yugoslavia outnumbered the Americans. Serbo-Croatian, spoken abroad, was like a secret language that only a select few could understand. And even though I’d had to correct the pronunciation of my name the first time the teacher called roll in every class for my entire school life, having such strong ties to another culture and what felt like a permanent home in a different country—as opposed to the various apartments, duplexes, and houses where we’d lived in California, Ohio, and Maryland—had always grounded me.
When the Serbian team became Davis Cup champions in December 2010, I felt something unfamiliar: pride in the part of myself that I’d tried to keep at a distance for nearly two decades. In retrospect, it seems unsurprising that when Novak Djoković began the 2011 season not just by winning the Australian Open but by going unbeaten for weeks, then months, totaling 41 matches and 7 titles in a row, I was hooked. No longer dependent on network or even cable tv, I watched every one of his matches during the first part of the season on my desktop monitor thanks to digital streams. At least weekly, I would call my father with updates or send him links to online coverage of the winning streak. Then, just a few days before my birthday, Djoković won Wimbledon, beating Rafael Nadal for the fifth time that year, and took over the top spot. Within the month, I had put my job search on hold and written my first piece about tennis. Within two months, I had booked a flight to Belgrade and talked my way into media credentials for the Davis Cup semifinal against Argentina.
In an interview during that September week in Serbia, Djoković recalled his twelfth birthday in 1999, during which NATO bombs dropped on his hometown, observing: “The war made me a better person because I learned to appreciate things and to take nothing for granted. The war also made me a better tennis player because I swore to myself that I’d prove to the world that there are good Serbs, too.” It didn’t require twenty major titles and countless other records for Djoković to prove that there are good Serbian tennis players. Indeed, that had likely been established as a fact long before he made the promise to himself. But the burden of representing a twenty-first century Serbia to the world is one that he and, to a lesser degree, the other members of the golden generation still carry. It’s why tennis, for them, is more than a game.